URBAN INSTABILITY + DISPLACEMENT: Reflections on Migrants’ Housing and a Recent Beijing Fire

By Dr. Yulin Chen

Yulin Chen is an associate professor in the Department of Urban Planning within the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University, China. With a background in urban planning and sociology, Dr. Chen’s research focuses on urban governance in megacities, housing policy for migrants, migrants’ integration and spatial responses. During the academic year 2017-2018, Dr. Chen was a fellow with the Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies (SPURS) at MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Migrant housing in Zhufang village, Beijing. Photographed by Yulin Chen, 2015

Migrant housing in Zhufang village, Beijing. Photographed by Yulin Chen, 2015

In late 2017, a major housing fire in Beijing triggered a great debate about housing for urban migrants. The fire in an informal mixed use building in Daxing district of Beijing was caused by an electrical wiring problem in a cold storage unit in the basement. Nineteen people who had been living in the building died; seventeen of them were migrants. After this tragic loss of lives, the Beijing municipal government implemented a citywide safety inspection of informal housing, with the goal of closing down unsafe living conditions. The outcome became very controversial. When the city declared thousands of informal places not fit for residential use, thousands of migrants were displaced, forced to vacate their homes in a short period of time. From a legal perspective, the demolition of informal structures was in accordance with the law. However, from the perspective of human wellbeing, this action destroyed stable social living conditions and made it harder for migrants to sustain themselves in Beijing. This action also caused great losses in rental income to Beijing villagers who owned these buildings. The construction of illegal housing in Beijing cannot simply be blamed on local residents who built the informal housing, nor on migrants who rented the informal housing. Rather, this event reflects structural challenges in rapidly transforming China, which include both the imbalance between rural and urban areas as well as a lack of housing options for migrants in megacities.

The first chanllenge lies in unequal development between urban and rural areas. Since the country’s opening-up policy in 1978 and the reform of household registration system since the 1980s, China has experienced an economic boom. Hundreds of millions of rural residents migrated to cities, providing a boundless labor force to drive the economic development. For example, Beijing’s migrant population increased from 2.6 million to 7.0 million between 2000 and 2010, with their proportion of the total population increasing from 18.9% to 35.9%. This large-scale migration results in a tremendous mismatch between people and housing: while large cities become more crowded and short of housing, small cities and villages are declining and becoming vacant. This problem of regional-balanced development needs to be addressed, especially in a country like China with a large population and a vast territory.

Migrant housing in Zhufang village, Beijing. Photographed by Yulin Chen, 2015

Migrant housing in Zhufang village, Beijing. Photographed by Yulin Chen, 2015

The second challenge comes from the institutional urban-rural division. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chinese local governments have put most of their construction and management efforts in urban areas rather than in rural areas. As a result, most of the informal housing is built in peri-urban areas and suburban areas, where low levels of management and regulation allow local residents to build housing for rent on their farmlands (Wu, 2002). As more residents migrate to Beijing, this informal housing supply on the outskirts is expanding rapidly. However, unlike urban residents who can sell their housing for profit, rural villagers cannot sell their housing on the market, as their land use rights were allocated by the government to them as farmers to preserve agricultural land (Zhao, 2017). Therefore, to take advantage of the large rental market, rural villagers in peri-urban areas build informal housing on their land to rent to migrants.  Although the construction is illegal, it brings the villagers and the village committees a lot of profit and provides migrants with low-income rental housing. Even the township governments turn a blind eye to this kind of construction to enlarge their revenue. From this point of view, the safety inspection of informal housing in Beijing may be considered a reactionary response due to the government’s long-term neglect and management of rural areas.

Third, attention also needs to be given to migrants’ housing choice. Migrants’ incomes are generally not much lower than that of local citizens in most Chinese cities. In large cities like Beijing, while some migrants succeed in buying housing, most of them are excluded from purchasing housing because of soaring housing prices, and they are also excluded from the publicly sponsored affordable housing system because they do not possess a local household registration certificate. Therefore, most rural migrants have to live in rental housing. As many previous studies have pointed out, most of these migrants want to spend as little as possible on their urban residences in order to save money to build housing in their hometowns. Therefore, even if formal housing is available, rural migrants tend to choose an informal residence with cheaper rent (Wu, 2002; Zheng et al, 2009). This situation poses a policy and program question to the government: What kind of housing and affordability is suitable for migrants, if affordable housing is to be built for them in the cities?

To address these problems, in the long term, the Chinese central government needs to pay more attention to balancing development between rural areas and urban areas, in order to restore a match between the population and the space available. In the mid-term, the shortage of affordable housing in large cities needs to be addressed through multiple approaches. One helpful new approach was announced in 2017, when the Chinese central government released a new policy to allow village committee to build formal rental housing on rural land where farm houses are built, which could be a good news for both migrants and local villagers. In the short term, local governments need to be fully prepared for the possible social outcome of implementing their policies. The latest news from Beijing says that a complex of migrant rental apartments will be built on the site of the burned informal housing. Hopefully, similar residential opportunities will be built elsewhere. If it is, the tragic fire of November 2017 would have led to more inclusive development in China.  


  1. Wu, Weiping. Migrant Housing in Urban China: Choices and Constraints. Urban Affairs Review, 2002, 38(1): 90-119
  2. Zhao, Pengjun. An ‘Unceasingwar’ on Land Development on the Urban Fringe of Beijing: A Case Study of Gated Informal Housing Communities. Cities, 2017(60): 139-146
  3. Zheng, Siqi, et al. Urban Villages in China: A 2008 Survey of Migrant Settlements in Beijing, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 2009, 50(4): 425-446